Saturday, September 29, 2007

Luria and LeDoux

I distinctly recall a year of my life, when I was about eight or nine, in which books about kids with amazing mnemonic abilities were decidedly in vogue at my elementary school.
The heroes of the stories all had their own techniques and practices that allowed them to remember things in far greater detail then you or I, and their skill were always described as infinitely beneficial. Encyclopedia Brown; the boy detective with the photographic memory, had no drawback to his heightened visual memory. Luria would have been distressed by the degree of fictionalization and overwhelming optimism with which the boy was portrayed, for he was written rather one-dimensionally as a kind of cross between superman and a 35mm camera. Then again, the book was written for nine-year-olds, so I'm sure part of the beauty can be found in its lack of realism and basis in scientific research. It turns out that reading “The Synaptic Self” in conjunction with Luria’s description of a heightened memory affected my understanding of the phenomena of heightened memory in an individual, and permanently changed the way I read young-adult fiction.
Like Madeline, I too wondered briefly about the way S.’s synaptic connections might have been subtracted or “pruned” to favor the specific connections required to result in his eidetic abilities. As she so astutely points out, given the trillions of synaptic connections we all possess, and given the process LeDoux describes of a “use it or lose it” selection of synapse maintenance or elimination, it seems quite remarkable, not that someone like S. can exist, but that more people don’t possess such specific and unique abilities as a result of the way their brains end up built.
It occurs to me, however, that perhaps there was some combination of influences on S. (both genetic variables and environmental/chemical exposures) that left him more specifically suited to the maintenance of a deeply visual and synesthetic mind. That is to say; perhaps at some point in our development every human has the capacity to develop synaptic connections based on either strong verbal ability, or strong visually associative ability (like S’s) or even perhaps some strong auditory or tactile abilities. This would mean that, as LeDoux describes on page 79, the brain arbitrarily or in accordance with generic instructions forms all kind of synaptic connections and in a kind of evolutionary way the connections that are beneficial mutations for the environment in which we live survive and receive excitatory transmitter glutamate, whereas the ones which put as at a disadvantage simply die. Thus, perhaps we can think about S. as, at some very early (perhaps even natal stage), at a metaphorical crossroads. One path would result in a rather balanced and relatively un-associative collection of synaptic connections like those you and I possess, whereas the other would result in the kind of highly imaginative, associative synesthetic mind that Luria describes. For whatever reasons then (presumably some combination of variables genetic and environmental that were highly specific to S.’s case) he took the mental road less traveled, and in terms of the way he saw and thought about the world, that made all the difference.

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